History explainer: who was John Blanke?
John Blanke was a trumpeter at the Tudor royal court. Documents show there were many Black people living in Britain in that period. But John Blanke is the only Black Tudor for whom there is an identifiable image as well as written sources. In this video, Michael Ohajuru, founder of the John Blanke project, discusses what we know about John Blanke, why he is significant, and how artists and school children have responded to his story.
History explainer: who was John Blanke?
I’m Michael Ohajuru. I see myself as a culture historian.
John Blanke is believed to be the first person of African descent in British history for whom we have both a record, a written record, and we have a visual image.
We know he actually existed, and we have an idea of what he looked like.
John Blanke was a trumpeter at the court of Henry VII, Henry VIII, and his image appears on the Westminster Tournament Roll.
This is a document that Henry VIII commissioned to celebrate a joust for the birth of his son to Katherine of Aragon on New Year's Day that year.
This is a working man. This is a time when the only people who had their portraits were the elites and in the church. So, this is wholly exceptional that we have an image of a recognisably Black person that we can put a name to.
What do we know about John Blanke? is a really intriguing question, because he appears in the court records about 1507. The next list of trumpeters, he doesn’t appear in 1514. So, it’s those five years, we've got some brief records of him being paid wages, being given cloth for the coronation of Henry VIII, also given cloth for the funeral of Henry’s father, Henry VII.
And the most spectacular document is the one where he actually petitions the king for a wage increase. This is a working-class man, and he not only asks for his wage to be doubled, he asks for it to be backdated, and such is his confidence, the king accepts it. The king signs it, and he has his pay doubled from eight pence a day, old pence a day, to 16 pence a day, and it’s backdated.
In terms of people outside the court in the wider Tudor society, there’s records of Black Tudors up and down the land, mainly in the ports, Plymouth, Exeter and so on. In London there are several mentions of Black Tudors; those are the wonderfully titled ‘Reasonable Blackman’. He was a silk weaver.
The John Blanke Project is an art and archive project which celebrates John Blanke.
I work with artists and historians to reimagine them.
We had an exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery, where some of the work was on display.
So, I see it as a kind of an ongoing project celebrating John Blanke. And one of my biggest takeaways from it is working with my children. I found that really rewarding, going into schools, telling 'em about John Blanke. They always have a different view.
One of the most memorable one was a little boy said, ‘He must have been strong.’ I said, ‘Why is that?’ He said, ‘Well, to ride a horse and play a trumpet at the same time.’ I'd never really thought about that.
There are so few images of Black people.
Portraiture, a coat of arms, were for the elite, for the top people in society. It would be wholly exceptional, and it is, as you see with John Blanke, to have that image, that we know what he looked like.
There's certainly lots of records of working-class people, lots of records of course, but in terms of that image, that’s what makes it so special.
- Investigate who John Blanke was, and the sources that tell us about him.
- Analyse the significance of John Blanke in British history.
Watch and discuss
- There are many reasons. We know that it is not because were no Black people; sources show there were many Black people living in Britain.
- It could be that only a very small number of people in Tudor Britain had the wealth or status to have their portrait painted. Or that artists and historians in the past often focussed on influential British white men in telling the story of Britain. It is also possible that portraits were made but were simply lost.
- John Blanke was a working man, so he was not a member of the elite. However, he had status in the royal household. Musicians played an important part in royal ceremonies.
- John Blanke worked in the royal court and his image appears on the Westminster Tournament Roll, a royal document.
- He was awarded a pay rise by the king. The king also gave John Blanke a wedding present, indicating that he had the king’s favour.
- We have evidence of who John Blanke was and what he looked like through documentary sources and images.
- His image on the Westminster Tournament Roll shows the presence of Black people in Tudor Britain.